About That Clothesline…

Posted on December 28, 2018 by

Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

In December 2013, Communities published an article I wrote called “Putting Our Lives on the Line” (www.ic.org/putting-our-lives-on-the-line). I wrote about the joys and challenges of line drying laundry for my family of six in the intentional community where I lived. I felt good about the piece and shared it with friends and family. I was amazed when the editor wrote me to say that a writer for the Scientific American blog cited my article in a piece about environmentally sustainable practices (blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/energy-and-community-lets-meet-at-the-clothes-line). I got word recently that it is being included in a new book, Sustainability in Community: Resources and Stories about Creating Eco-Resilience in Intentional Community (www.ic.org/community-bookstore/product/sustainability-in-community). (Yay, another step toward becoming a bona fide legit writer!) This book is one of a four-volume series on intentional communities, Wisdom of Communities (ic.org/wisdom). But here’s the catch, the addendum to my piece: In December 2017 I moved half a mile away from the intentional community where I lived when I wrote the piece, and I own a dryer now (but I hardly ever use it).

My love affair with line drying may have started to wane when I visited a friend on a rainy day in 2015 and brought a load of wet laundry with me. She’s a college professor, poet, and mom who was happy to share her dryer with me. I popped my clothes in to dry and realized, as we drank coffee and talked, that I wanted more choices than my current life offered. When I got home that night I wrote in my journal, “So is a basket of warm and fluffy clothes going to be the lure that finally pulls me out of intentional community?”1

Then my mother-in-love moved to town in 2016. She watched me scrambling from one incomplete project to the next. She watched my children as I jumped from meeting to meeting. And she watched me haul baskets of laundry in and out of my house. “Crumb [that’s as close as she gets to cursing], Josina, when do you ever find time to write?” I told her that I wrote on the occasional mornings when I would wake up naturally at 4:00 or 5:00 or sometimes at night when the kids are in bed. She is a classical violinist who knows from experience that raw talent can be refined through discipline and routine. She asked me how many hours a week I spent hanging and folding laundry. I guessed at least three. “Here’s what I’d like to do for you,” she said. “I’ll do your laundry but only if you use that extra time to write.”

So, she did my laundry, for a year, and I found my life falling a little more into balance. I also felt like the biggest hypocrite, imposter-fake-earthy-mama in the world. Here I was playing the role of the happy communitarian who—wait for it—actually, wore clothes that went through a dryer! It was like the year in junior high school where I tried to be a complete vegetarian, even tried to talk my friends into it, but, when I got home from school, I heated up a hamburger and ate it alone in my bedroom. I was eating my words, slowly and privately, unable to publicly admit to the internal conflict I felt between my ideals and my practices. I felt a growing strain in my relationships within my community because I knew that I could not rely on my mother-in-law’s generosity forever. I would have to choose to accept line drying for the rest of my life or move.

I also felt this amazing outpouring of grace. Every day that I dropped off laundry I felt like we were doing important redemptive work. Historically, when a woman of color appears with a full laundry basket at the door of an older white woman, the clothes are washed, dried, ironed, and folded by the brown hands. I appeared with baskets of unsorted dirty clothes and she returned them to my doorstep oftentimes better than I left them. Missing buttons were sowed back, rips were mended, and there would be little yellow sticky notes of apology for not being able to get out a stain. I didn’t use a full three hours each week, but I started to prioritize writing time and produce work that felt tighter and stronger than when I was writing haphazardly. I felt a little embarrassed and completely undeserving of my own personal Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter’s laundry-doing hedgehog). Almost every week I would say, “You don’t have to do this for us, really I can manage.” And she would assure me that she didn’t have that much to do with her day and that it made her happy.

It made her happy. As the years rolled by (and as I fought multiple rounds of super lice on my kids’ heads—we’ll save that for another story) I began to resent that I did not have the option of a clothes dryer. I realized that I felt happier knowing that I have choices. I realized that if I had to choose between two uninterrupted hours of writing or two hours of winter line drying, I would choose chilly fingers on a keyboard over chilly fingers gripping clothespins. I wanted my children to remember and see me happy with my choices.

I’m not going to be able to trace every thread that led to my family’s decision to move, but one of the factors was, indeed, my desire for the choice to use a clothes dryer—a choice that our community had decided, long before we moved there, would not be an option. There is this tragic scene in the movie Ray in which Ray’s little brother drowns while his mom was at the clothesline. Ray Charles’ heroin addiction was an attempt to bury that haunting memory. I think constantly about women who had and have very few choices in their lives and the tragic consequences that can emerge when women and children are drowning in poverty. Hanging line after line in the Georgia sunshine I felt this enormous tension between the pleasure and privilege I had to slow down and hang my clothes on a line and the desire for time to join my voice with others in the ongoing fight for justice and equality. It doesn’t have to be either/or, but for me and my family to thrive, I knew that we needed something as simple as how we did our laundry to feel like a complete and voluntary choice.

We bought our dryer on a rainy day in December, one week after we moved into the old farmhouse where we live now. My husband and I went to the used appliance shop in the next town over and picked out a simple model for $125. It has been over a month at this time of writing, and I have used the dryer about four times. We have a drying rack in the kitchen and a clothesline out back which we use on a regular basis. I still love that time of birdsong, breeze, and sunshine. I don’t regret any of what I wrote or practiced over the past six and a half years. I moved only half a mile away because I still value and I am very connected to the community that helped to form me and my family. We still want to be good stewards of our resources. But I needed to be happy, free of resentment, and joyful in our choices. We are still intentional about nurturing healthy relationships to the earth and the people around us, and, sometimes, that means we choose to use a clothes dryer.

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So, if you’ve read this far, I’m curious:

When have you had to eat your words—have you written or proclaimed something that needs an addendum?

Have the things that were important to you four years ago changed?

How do you live with the gap between righteous ideals and flawed practice?

Have you ever tried to hide your choices from the people you love when your values and practices diverge?

Have you ever chosen to distance yourself from a community so that you can strengthen those relationships and live more authentically?

And of course, how do you dry your laundry and why?

Josina Guess, “mother of four, follower of Jesus, lover of beauty,” posted a version of this article on January 26, 2018 at her blog site, Josina’s Kitchen Table: josinaskitchentable.blogspot.com/2018/01/about-that-clothesline.html. Please contact her there or at josinaguess [AT] gmail.com.

Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

1Editor’s Note: to be clear, unlike the author’s former community, many intentional communities—likely most of them—do allow the use of clothes dryers.

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